Whenever I see a group of children tear across Crissy Field or the beach, it makes me stop and watch with pure delight. To be free with their able bodies—testing speed and agility, laughing out loud, uninhibited, and wild—speaks to their innate need to move at will. Children, as we do, need to connect with the natural world and be part of it.

Sadly, such scenarios are becoming rarer for many American children. Over the last 20 years, I have seen a sharp decline in unstructured downtime for children. At a recent pediatric update conference, one presenter spoke about the amount of screen time that children and teens engage in daily. Surprisingly, or perhaps not, they spend up to seven hours a day on tablets, phones, TV, and computers. Think of how that time could be used to connect to others while in motion. Or, just time to wander, wonder, or climb a tree.
In 2003, the College of London University studied 1,500 preschool-age children and found that increased screen time and decreased physical activity correlated with a higher incidence of psychological distress. What followed was a “public health policy” to reduce the sedentary lives of young children and maintain “sufficient” activity levels.

The average preschooler spends three to 10 hours in a highly supervised group care. School-age children endure 10 hours a day of structured time—if you add after-school care to the school day. Little, if any, of this time allows for free, unstructured play and body movement. We need to open our hearts and minds and do a better job of taking care of our children and youth.

We are seeing increased anxiety levels, diabetes, and obesity in our young, as well as more forms of aggression, self-medicating, and self-injury. While much of this cannot be directly linked to lack of exercise, many children are finding it difficult to release stored energy. This release allows us and our bodies to self-regulate, deal with normal stressors, and keep in “balance.” Children are no different than we are in this way.

Long hours in a structured group setting or in an enclosed space add to the daily stress our children mange every day. There is little doubt that many poor behaviors both at school and at home can be attributed to pent-up energy that has nowhere to go.
Here are a few tips for parents:

  1. Prioritize downtime. Do our children really need to have one more after-school skills class?
  2. Calendar one day per week to pick up your child early from child care. (Alternate with the other parent) and take your child to the park and play.
  3. Institute an unplugged day; everyone turns in his or her phone for 24 hours.
  4. Prohibit televisions and computers in bedrooms
  5. Limit time in strollers and car seats. Make sure that nannies and caregivers are instructed accordingly.
  6. Make one weekend day a “use-our-feet” day for transportation (bikes, walking, etc.).

In my capacity as a parent coach, I stress a balance of work and school and family. There is no greater or far-reaching work than the time we put into our children and their sense of well-being. Modeling the use of our bodies and having downtime is showing our children what we value.

Over the years, I have been confronted by many a “wild child” with unruly behaviors. My prescription to teachers and parents has often been the following: Take a long walk, find an acre parcel, and let the child run and play until he or she drops. It solves many of the problems we see in young children who simply need to be wild and free for a part of their day.

Mechele Pruitt, BA, is the Director of Parents Place in San Francisco.